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" It’s all just hooey. Morality disguised as fact. "
— Liam Neeson, Kinsey

MRQE Top Critic

Creed II

It's all about the importance of character and the ability to face life's challenges. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Creed II

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Rachel Zegler is the new soul of The Hunger Games.

Snow Lands on Top

Coriolanus and Lucy
Coriolanus and Lucy

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows the prequel route, taking place 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games series starring Jennifer Lawrence. While there’s a brief prologue setting the stage three years before the very first games, the bulk of the action surrounds the 10th annual contest.

Maintaining public interest in the spectacle wherein a boy and a girl “volunteer” from each of Panem’s 12 districts and enter a death match has become a struggle. One voice speaks up — Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) — and suggests to Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) the games need to be made personal. Give the public something to cheer about; get the voyeurs invested in the participants by getting to know them better.

Coriolanus offered the suggestion in the same season evaluating the mentors of the district representatives would enter the picture. Those two adjustments to the annual tradition become catalysts for a series of events with repercussions that would be felt across Panem for decades.

Prequels can be tricky, particularly when tied to a well-regarded series with widespread popularity. Certainly, the divisiveness of the Star Wars prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) is the epitome of how public expectations and creative visions can differ dramatically. Also, Fantastic Beasts, a prequel series to Harry Potter, has sputtered after three movies in a previously expected series of five.

But here, it all clicks.

Enjoy the Show

A huge part of the appeal is a fresh angle series creator Suzanne Collins puts on District 12. In Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Lucy Gray Baird steps into the deathmatch with the defiance of an artist. She’s a spunky, colorful character and that description extends far beyond the fact she’s first presented wearing a Bohemian dress handed down from her deceased mother. She’s a folk singer who likes to sing when she has something to say. And she’s portrayed by Rachel Zegler, who knocked it out of the park as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s exquisite version of West Side Story.

Here, Lucy is introduced with a song in her heart and a snake in her pocket. That’s one grabber of an introduction.

The effectiveness of this aspect cannot be overstated. It’s truly an excellent refactoring of the hillbilly District 12 environment and it brings in the power of the legacy of folk (or folk-like) music from around the world and throughout the ages. For simplicity’s sake, think of artists like Bob Seeger. Think about how music can be a flashpoint for expressing or defining a moment in time, and for invigorating and uniting people.

It’s a brilliant idea that energizes this fifth film entry in the series and the folk music is legit. Zegler – sometimes accompanied by the folk-rock Covey Band – sings songs written by Dave Cobb and Suzanne Collins, featuring lyrics that are meaningful to her character and the story, while also serving as terrific standalone music, particularly the songs The Hanging Tree and Nothing You Can Take from Me.

Lucy Gray is one-half of the equation.

The other half is equally important and equally surprising in its effectiveness. That’s Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow. The star of the Billy the Kid streaming series presents the innocent, well-meaning Coriolanus, who crosses a dangerous line by — after making his recommendation to get to know the contestants — actually starting to fall for Lucy.

It’s an unlikely romance that works in part because the individual characters are strong and the complications of their relationship are not ignored.

Hunger Is a Weapon

Coriolanus and Volumnia
Coriolanus and Volumnia

The parallel, then intertwining, stories of Lucy and Coriolanus drive Ballad to a new level of narrative engagement while also delivering director Francis Lawrence’s best movie to date. (Lawrence directed three of the original four Hunger Games movies; he also made the transition from music videos to the big screen with Keanu Reeves in Constantine in 2005.)

But Lucy and Coriolanus are not alone.

Life in Panem continues to feature silly character names, ridiculous hairdos and extravagant outfits. But there’s also a mean spirit hiding under the gloss of the Panem lifestyle.

There are some vicious comments that act as a mirror on the post-pandemic world. While the Katniss Everdeen movies were released from 2012-2015, in what now seems like almost impossibly calmer times, Ballad comes in a swirl of streaming media, a flood of influencers (some with dubious backgrounds), an ongoing — borderline bizarre — fascination with reality television and an increasingly dangerous geopolitical climate.

It stings when Volumnia spits out venomous statements like, “I’m not above using spectacle to create a little terror.” Further, her goal is to “turn children into spectacles, not survivors.”

It all serves to raise the question: What price are people willing to pay for a great show? In this case, it’s not just superficiality of exorbitant cost of concert tickets. It’s the soul-crushing taxation of one group’s suffering serving as another group’s entertainment.

Own It

In that light, maybe the secret to Ballad’s success is it holds a relevance on the increase instead of on the more typical decline. The rise of racism (universally negative) and a marked uptick in labor unions after an extended period of relative dormancy (harboring both positive and negative influences) stand in-step with Panem’s world haunted by shades of nationalists and communists.

Along with Dr. Gaul, there’s Dean Casca Highbottom. It’s hard to track where Peter Dinklage is headed with his perpetually hungover character until Casca’s own motivations are revealed toward the movie’s conclusion. It’s a powerful spin on what transpired during the first nine years and further elevates the significance of Coriolanus’ contributions.

What is rather puzzling is Collins’ source novel was published in May 2020 and there hasn’t been a follow-up since. Perhaps the biggest challenge this prequel — buoyed by the appeal of Zegler and Blyth — faces is that right now it’s the end of road. There are no other published stories to adapt. But, that’s no reason to not dive deeper into the history leading up to the 64th Hunger Games, particularly given the dramatic turns experienced by both Lucy and Coriolanus.